In the rabbit hole | Multimedia


Last Wednesday I watched live coverage of the Congressional hearing in which Instagram chief Adam Mosseri testified before a (bipartisan!) Senate panel on consumer protection of children online. . Panelists cited research indicating that 95% of teens own or have access to smartphones, and 45% admit to being online almost constantly. Other statistics presented during the hearing are more alarming: 30% of girls with poor body image say Instagram made it worse, and 6% of girls say their desire to kill themselves was caused by Instagram.

Although repeatedly asked to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Mosseri avoided questions about legislation that would allow the United States to follow a code like the United Kingdom’s that enforces the standards. consumer protection on online sites. I was shocked to learn that this country does not have such a code. Here, parents have no recourse under the law to hold Instagram accountable for the harm it can cause to children.

Despite my daughter and son-in-law’s best attempts to delay purchasing a smartphone for our 14 year old granddaughter, Helen quickly joined her crowd of friends who were using them. At first, they mostly just texted each other. They (and more importantly, their bodies) weren’t on display. But with social media, a new dynamic has started, one that puts the mental health of adolescents, especially girls, at risk.

The effect of social media on girls is “terrible,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. “The wrong photo can lead to school-wide or even national infamy, cyberbullying of strangers, and a permanent scarlet letter.” Suicide and self-harm have increased in measurable ways. (Jonathan Haidt, “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls”, The Atlantic, November 21, 2021)

One of my nieces, a recent University of Miami graduate working for a tech startup, told me about the harms of social media, as well as other issues that tend to erode the self-confidence of young people ( especially women).

The images create an illusion, she said, an impossibility to live. Young women find it hard to be compared to such illusions. They are constantly confronted with these comparisons the moment they log onto social media, and when they are ‘liked’ they receive a dopamine surge. “It becomes addictive,” she said. “A dangerous addiction that manipulates the brain. “

My niece used three words throughout our conversation – algorithm, food, and rabbit hole – as if I could relate. I am starting to. An algorithm is a finite set of exact steps that lead to the desired result – and in the case of entities like Instagram, that goal is to increase the amount of time a user stays logged in. When you see something online that catches your eye and click on it, the AI ​​grabs it as ‘food’ you love, and you will be constantly being fed with similar material. Then, as your choices are constrained by an increasingly focused and unchanging diet, you’ll lose sight of what else is beyond the world the AI ​​is showing you. You will be sucked deeper and deeper into a vortex (rabbit hole) that isolates you from others.

My niece said, “Social media engages young people in the busy mind. This distracts them from conversations with friends and makes it difficult to pursue a thought. There’s no time to process what’s in their flow. When they disengage from reality, they feel restless, helpless. They may have a hard time going against the tide, but without roots they feel like they are floating.

She looked behind me wistfully. “Women are trying to support each other and speak out more about false expectations of being the perfect woman,” she said. “They aspire to be the best versions of themselves. They need to feel safe collectively, but they don’t feel safe in an unstable and unsympathetic world.

The pandemic has added physical isolation to the loneliness of the virtual world and has contributed to the problems that many young people, including students, face. A local college professor recently told me in an email, “The number of students with mental illness is really epidemic. They either withdraw from college altogether, unable to cope, or they fail to make it to class and / or complete their assignments in record numbers. I’ve never had so many students in crisis (and in danger of failure), and it’s hard to know how to help them. Clearly, the general circumstances of the pandemic are to blame. The fear, loss, suffering and hopelessness of the crisis seem to have spawned many other crises: anger, violence, physical abuse, drug addiction, economic collapse, despair.

Psychologists agree that the pandemic has made mental problems worse for young people, but experts like Mitch Prinstein, chief executive of the American Psychological Association (APA), believe a crisis was on the rise before the pandemic began. “Suicide was already the second leading cause of death in children,” Prinstein told the Washington Post. “We are seeing a real reduction in emotional intimacy in children because so much of their communication is now electronic… So there is no possibility of disclosure and support and feeling capable of really you. represent authentically. “(Quoted by María Luisa Paúl in” A youth mental health crisis was already brewing. The pandemic has made matters worse, according to the surgeon general “, the Washington Post, December 8, 2021)

The harmful effects of social media affect us all, not just young people. I can attest to that.

I joined Medium, an online site for readers and writers, thinking I would see writing on a variety of topics. As a journalist, I need to be exposed to all kinds of material that could inspire me or help me find future columns. But with my first click on a story in Medium, I began my unexpected and unnoticed descent into a rabbit hole.

I wrote an article for the Altavista Journal a few weeks ago on exercise. When I was ready to move on to another topic, I scanned the writing in Medium and found a surprising number of exercise stories… but not much else. In another article for the Journal, I wrote about electric cars. Immediately, Medium sent me articles on electric vehicles and, of course, exercise. But little else. Bitcoin is mystifying me, and I thought I could do an article on it, so I clicked on some related writing. Indeed, my “flow” has become exercise, electric vehicles and now Bitcoin. But little else. I finally became aware of the strategy of feeding on material based on what I clicked. Exasperated, I emailed Medium to find out how I could view material unrelated to my previous interests. “Do I have to clear my reading history every time?” ” I asked. Yes. Everytime. So, as long as I remember to take the extra step to erase what I read, I can see a wide variety of topics.

But hey, it wasn’t easy to get out of that hole or not fall back into it. What about adolescents? Or people with a certain political inclination who would like to know more about the divergent points of view? Or parents who would like to make informed decisions about which vaccines their children should or shouldn’t get, which books their children should or shouldn’t read, the story their children should or shouldn’t know… How the hell can we never crawled out of our rabbit holes?

Born and raised in Altavista, Virginia, Lynda Pinto-Torres, née Smith, returned to the area after a life of traveling, teaching, playing the piano, and writing. She and her husband live in the suburb of Bedford, Virginia, where she continues to work on her first novel, a work of historical fiction.


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